|Freedom, conscience and our catholic tradition|
Essay – Freedom, conscience and our catholic tradition
In the December 8 1984 issue of The Tablet there was a report of an interview with the eminent historian of philosophy, Frederick Coppleston SJ. Coppleston refers to a debate on the existence of God he had with Lord Bertrand Russell on BBC Radio in 1948:
He (Russell) thought that value judgment is simply the expression of emotion, attitude or something purely subjective, and that there is no absolute morality. I remember saying to him something like: ‘I’m sure, Lord Russell, that you would say it was absolutely wrong to behave in the way that the guards in the German concentration camps behaved to the inmates.’ He said: ‘Of course I would wish to say that is absolutely wrong, but it doesn’t fit in with my theory, so I’m rather in a dilemma.’ He said that in the original talk, but then when it came to preparing the script, he said: ‘I can’t say that in public,’ and toned it down.”
Thank God atheists – for the most part – don’t practice what they preach. The logic of Russell’s thinking was unacceptable even to Russell. Dostoievsky has one of his characters sum it up nicely: “Without God, all things are lawful.”
Some may object: “But Bertrand Russell was a morally decent man and many believers are not morally decent people.” That is not the point. The point is that Bertrand Russell had no reason to be moral. The believer does have a reason to be moral. The sad fact of the matter is that many a believer just doesn’t hear and heed his/her conscience.
For the sake of our sanity we must, as a society, be able to recognise good and evil and name them in a way that is reasonable. When sound reason ceases to be part of the human equation, we literally run out of reasons for sound living. For example, I am reminded of an interview I heard on ABC Radio National in August 2003. Margaret Throsby was interviewing a visiting Canadian philosopher, Professor Mark Kingwell. A transcript of the relevant part of the interview follows:
Throsby: Just staying with the happiness thing, in this day and age when everything is instantaneous, and our demand for gratification is also that we want it now, that there seems to have been a loosening of restraint and patience, in a sense. But this is …. Whenever I start talking like this, I feel myself imposing morality on the argument, which I don’t think is a good thing.
Kingwell: But why not? We’re here to …
Throsby: Because it’s my morality and may not be yours or somebody listening.
Kingwell: But can you defend it, can you make it cogent to somebody else? I think that’s the question.
Throsby: I don’t know whether you can defend … I don’t know whether morality is defensible. Is it?
Kingwell: I think it is. And I think that one of the mistakes that we make as modern people is the retreat into that absolute subjectivity.
Throsby: But let’s talk about what’s just happened in Jakarta: The morality of someone driving a bomb into a hotel and blowing up and killing people. It is understood by fanatical, fundamentalist people who think it was a cause for celebration. That’s the morality they would have the rest of the world accept, if the rest of the world was going to accept a morality imposed on them. I happen to find that that is reprehensible behaviour, and that is my morality … which is right, which is best?
Why do we think like this?
Margaret Throsby’s question at the end of this piece suggests helplessness. She can find no reason for condemning evil and promoting good. This is the direct result of abandoning any sense of the transcendent. It raises an urgent question for the Church: Why do otherwise reasonable and decent people come to this way of thinking?
My own reflection has led me to believe there are at least two forces at play here.
In the first instance, the kind of thinking manifested by Bertrand Russell has radically affected the consciousness of our generation. There seems to be a lack of insightful self-reflection and rigorous thinking, the kind of thinking that might reveal the practical limits of such a consciousness.
The moral person, surely, is someone who seeks “the moral good.” This necessarily places one’s life in dialogue with an objective reality, one to which we must ultimately freely submit. There is a fairly obvious logic here that Bertrand Russell sees but does not want to accept and Margaret Throsby does not seem to even see.
In the second instance, I believe there is something a little more pre-reflective happening. For many in our society, there is a deep gut reaction against someone – anyone – telling them that they know what is best for them. Hence the common rejoinder: “Don’t impose your morality on me!” (The fact that this rejoinder implies a certain moral position that they are trying to impose, does not seem to cross their minds.)
This reaction may be nearly as prevalent amongst Catholics as it is in the population at large. While it is not an entirely adult response, it is what we must deal with. These people cannot be simply dismissed. And I also suspect they cannot be dealt with in any merely abstract way, say by rational argument. What is happening here? How might we respond? What can we learn from them?
A point of pastoral redress
Many people I know have walked away from the Catholic Church and abandoned religion (in any formal sense), some even claim to be atheists. Most would admit to some kind of “spirituality” and many even think of themselves as Catholics still. They are good people. Do we simply say they have succumbed to the prevailing culture? Or is there more to it than that?
In my experience, people want to connect with people for whom God is real. They respond well to relationships that are honest and open, relationships that take them seriously as adults. Instead, too often, from the Church, they encounter impersonal and uninspiring talk about rules and regulations. Further, this talk seems to assume that they are children, not adults. Intelligent adults, typically, resist this. This sort of paternalism, so prevalent in a former time, is concisely articulated by Pope Leo XIII:
To the pastors alone has been given the full power of teaching, judging, directing; on the faithful has been imposed the duty of following these teachings, of submitting with docility to these judgments. (Cited in The Catholic Weekly, September 19, 1993, quoting The Freeman’s Journal, September 12, 1885.)
It is sad that this paternalistic way is still sometimes the case. And, indeed, some who walk away may use this as an excuse for not facing the deeper challenges of their own consciences. But that fact should not lead us, who have particular responsibilities for the wellbeing of the Church, to excuse ourselves. With the wisdom of a great poet, Les Murray sums it up well:
For many historical and other reasons, some of them Australian and our own fault, Christianity is no longer On Top in Australia. …. the experience is probably a salutary one for us. The time for ecclesiolatry, the worship of the visible church instead of God, is past. We're no longer free to indulge our bad habits of boring people, bullying them and backing up respectability; we're no longer in a position to call on the law to do for us what we should be doing by inspiration and example; we're no longer in a position to push second-rate thinking …. (“Some Religious Stuff I know About Australia.”)
Each person has a unique story to tell and all their stories are complex. But two of the recurring themes in the stories I hear are those of freedom and conscience.
Cardinal Walter Kasper wrote a fine little piece on freedom in his book, An Introduction to Christian Faith. He makes a remarkable admission, that “the Church was always terrified of freedom.” He goes on to speak beautifully and insightfully:
The saving reality of the redemption is the lived reality of freedom. … To believe in God and to decide that freedom is the ultimate value in reality is one and the same.
Cardinal Kasper leaves us in no doubt that this freedom is the result of the saving death and resurrection of Jesus. The freedom for which we are created and which we naturally seek is, therefore, much more than merely psychological or political freedom.
Cardinal Avery Dulles similarly writes well of freedom (The New World of Faith). Like Cardinal Kasper, he too emphasizes the complexities in this concept and Jesus Christ as the ultimate and, in the end, only source of the freedom we seek.
The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council remind us that freedom is at the core of our human dignity: “For its part, authentic freedom is an exceptional sign of the divine image within the human being” (Gaudium et Spes, #17).
This whole paragraph on freedom in Gaudium et Spes is, in fact, a compromise statement. It is not entirely satisfactory. Yet, the Council – like Cardinals Kasper and Dulles – indicates a direction in which we ought to move. Is it not both faithful to the Gospel and our tradition, and prudent at this time, to affirm freedom, promote reflection on it and educate people to it?
The fact that some people misuse or abuse or misrepresent freedom is no reason for us to abandon it or diminish its importance in a healthy human life. On the contrary, we ought to be in the forefront of rescuing freedom from its destructive counterfeits. Fr Lamennais, the French intellectual at the beginning of the 19th century spoke insightfully when he said that “freedom which has been called for in the name of atheism must now be demanded in the name of God.”
Pope John Paul II highlights the link between freedom and conscience in his Apostolic Letter of September 1, 1980, “Freedom of Conscience and of Religion”:
First, it is clear that the starting point for acknowledging and respecting that freedom is the dignity of the human person, who experiences the inner and indestructible exigency of acting freely ‘according to the imperatives of his own conscience.’ (#2)
Pope John Paul II is speaking specifically here in the context of religious freedom. But we must be consistent. If the fundamental concepts of human freedom and conscience are grounded in the dignity of the human person, are they not to be promoted as essential parts of our humanity in every field of human endeavour, including our commitment as faithful Catholics within the Church?
In an address in 1988 at La Trobe University the then Bishop Pell expressed concern at the misrepresentation of “the doctrine of the primacy of conscience.” I believe that concern was well placed. Bishop Pell went on to say that the concept “should be quietly ditched.”
In April 2003, when Cardinal Pell gave his presentation at the Bishops Forum (organized by Catalyst for Renewal) he said that he “believe(d) strongly in the importance of individual conscience.” He offered a powerful example of a person coming to a conscientious life decision. But he then went on to say that:
conscience is at the service of truth; it stands under God’s word. Conscience has no primacy. Truth has primacy. The Word of God has primacy. When basic Catholic and Christian doctrines are explicitly and sometimes publicly denied, basic questions of personal integrity then have to be answered. I believe that the mischievous doctrine of the primacy of conscience has been used to white-ant the Church, used to justify many un-catholic teachings, ranging as I mentioned from denying the Divinity of Christ to legitimising abortion and euthanasia.
Again, in “The Inconvenient Conscience” (May 2005), Cardinal Pell writes:
A Catholic conscience cannot accept a settled position against the Church, at least on a central moral teaching. Any difficulty with Church teaching should be not the end of the matter but the beginning of a process of conversion, education, and quite possibly repentance. Where a Catholic disagrees with the Church on some serious matter, the response should not be ‘that’s that – I can’t follow the Church here.’ Instead we should kneel and pray that God will lead our weak steps and enlighten our fragile minds, ….
We Catholics are struggling to develop an understanding of conscience in accord with the Gospel, the demands of ecclesial commitment and the realistic challenges of an adult faith concretized in a variety of new and demanding circumstances. Whatever else may be said of his opinions, the Cardinal forces us to address this struggle. For example, consider the tension between these teachings from Vatican II. The first is from Lumen Gentium, the second is from the Gaudium et Spes):
This religious submission of mind and will must be shown in a special way to the authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra; that is, it must be shown in such a way that his supreme magisterium is acknowledged with reverence, the judgments made by him are sincerely adhered to, according to his manifest mind and will. (Lumen Gentium #25)
In the depths of our consciences, we detect a law which we do not impose upon ourselves, but which holds us to obedience. (Gaudium et Spes, #16)
Gaudium et Spes here, in fact, seems to represent the best of the Church’s tradition on conscience. It suggests the Gospel vision of radical discipleship. This vision allows us to live responsibly and compassionately with the reality that sometimes those who teach on behalf of the Church get it wrong. What if, for example, someone had stood up in the face of repeated teachings on slavery or usury and said, “In conscience, I cannot accept this”? Our bishops stood in that tradition when they advised:
It is not impossible, however, that an individual may fully accept the teaching authority of the Pope in general, may be aware of his teaching in this matter, and yet reach a position after honest study and prayer that is at variance with the papal teaching. Such a person could be without blame; he would certainly not have cut himself off from the Church; and in acting in accordance with his conscience he could be without subjective fault. (“Pastoral Letter on the Application of Humanae Vitae” (1974).)
The Sacred Congregation for the Clergy likewise represents this tradition well:
In the final analysis conscience is inviolable and no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to conscience, as the moral tradition of the Church attests. (Official Communication of the Sacred Congregation of the Clergy, April 26, 1971.)
If people are behaving badly, and claiming the primacy of conscience to excuse their bad behaviour, we should do what we can to help them. Again, as with the concept of freedom, we ought to be in the forefront of rescuing conscience from its destructive counterfeits. We have a very rich tradition of teaching on the primacy of conscience, a teaching both we and our contemporaries would do well to study carefully. ¡
Michael Whelan is a Marist priest who lives and works in Sydney. He is currently the Principal of Aquinas Academy, is a co-founder of Catalyst for Renewal and edits The Mix.
THE AUTHOR WELCOMES CONTRIBUTIONS TO THIS CONVERSATION.